Why NHL players will continue to play through debilitating injuries in pursuit of championship glory.

Anyone following this year’s Stanley Cup Final between the LA Kings and New Jersey Devils could see Devils star forward Ilya Kovalchuk was not playing up to his usual standard, a fact that was mentioned more than once as the series went on.

Kovalchuk only had one point in the series (an empty net goal in Game Four), didn’t appear to be back-checking strongly, and seemed to physical contact.

Those who followed the Devils march to the Final knew Kovalchuk suffered a herniated disc during the club’s opening round series against the Florida Panthers.

In some games, where he had some treatment and perhaps extra time to rest between games, he didn’t appear hampered by the injury, and his performance improved.

During the Cup Final, however, it was apparent he was laboring, just as as he did midway through the Panthers series.

That prompted a few of my Twitter followers to suggest Kovalchuk should have “sat out” for the good of the team, that he was being selfish by continuing to play through an injury, and was only hurting the Devils.

It’s a logical suggestion, but those making it have no understanding of the culture of NHL players, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If, as suspected, Kovalchuk was still suffering from a herniated disc, he wasn’t about to approach head coach Pete DeBoer and say, “I’m not healthy enough to play, I’m only hurting the team, it’s best if I’m scratched in favor of another player”.

For that matter, DeBoer wouldn’t scratch Kovalchuk, his top goal-scorer, even it it was apparent he was a shell of himself in the Final. DeBoer would rather have his best sniper playing at 50 percent than replace him with a healthy, but lesser, player.

The only way Kovalchuk would’ve come out of the lineup is if the team doctor said so, and even then, he probably would’ve argued against the doctor’s decision.

In the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially in the Final, injured players will find a way to keep playing as long as they can still skate.

Playing hurt is long ingrained into the mindset of hockey players, especially in the professional ranks. Indeed, it’s a matter not just of personal pride and courage, but also something the NHL uses as a marketing tool to attract and retain fans: our pro athletes are tougher than those in other professional team sports.

And it’s not just cuts, bumps and bruises. It is sometimes horrific gashes in faces, forearms, and lower legs, slicing not just skin but tendons down to the bone, the type of wounds usually associated with vehicle accidents and violent crime scenes.

Bones are cracked or broken outright. Tendons and ligaments partially or fully torn. Cartilage worn away to where bone grinds on bone.

These are the kind of injuries which would have the mere mortals (the 99 percent of the population) hospitalized immediately, followed by lengthy recovery periods and rehab, involving weeks, sometimes months away from our jobs. And yet, in many cases, it rarely prevents an NHL player from returning quickly to action.

Hockey players are of course mere mortals, but physically they’re better conditioned than those who follow the sport. Mentally, too, because they’ve bought into the culture of pain, that they can rise above serious injuries, especially during the playoffs, postpone the inevitable surgeries and rehabs until the off-season,  to get that chance at winning the big prize they’ve trained for their entire lives.

This is especially true for the star players. The more their value to the lineup, the more they’ll be expected to “suck it up” and play through debilitating injuries. A fourth line center or a sixth defenseman can be replaced. A top forward, defenseman or goaltender cannot, so they attempt to play on, regardless of how hobbled and hampered they are, until the playoffs are over or they’re medically unable to continue.

It’s what fans, bloggers and pundits come to expect from them, because it’s inbred into the culture of the NHL. If you can still skate, you can still play. We revel in their toughness, admire them for their seeming ability to put mind over physical matter, to block out their pain and carry on, regardless of the potential consequences, short and long term, to their health.

If their efforts fail to result in a championship, we can respect them for “leaving it all on the ice”. If they succeed, we exalt their effort, especially if they’re star players, burnishing their legend to be retold again and again amongst friends and fellow fans.

This is a creed which has its roots in the history of the game.

It’s Boston Bruins legend Eddie Shore having his ear nearly torn off in a game but barely noticing, finding a doctor post-game who would agree to sew it back on, then using a mirror to watch the procedure to ensure the doctor did it right.

It’s Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “Rocket” Richard being knocked senseless and bleeding out of a crucial playoff game against Boston, returning for overtime stitched up, scoring the winning goal on an end-to-end rush, suffering an emotional breakdown in the dressing room, and having no memory of what is considered the greatest goal of his career.

It’s rugged Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bobby Baun breaking his ankle in a playoff game but returning to score in overtime. It’s Boston Bruins superstar Bobby Orr playing on despite numerous, crippling and ultimately career-shortening knee injuries.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins captain Mario Lemieux playing through a bad back, as well as returning from cancer treatments and performing as though he’d never left. It’s Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman playing nearly six months (including the 2002 Winter Olympics as well as a two-month slog through the Stanley Cup playoffs) with a knee injury. It’s Paul Kariya “off the floor, on the board!”

It’s Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom struggling through the 2009 Stanley Cup Final with a “lower body injury”, later determined to be “a near catastrophic testicle injury” suffered in the Conference Final.

It’s New York Rangers winger Marian Gaborik, criticized for his declining production through this year’s playoffs, revealing after his club was eliminated from the Eastern Conference Final he suffered a torn labrum in the first round against Ottawa,  played through pain for nearly two months, and will require surgery which will sideline him until mid-December.

And it’s Kovalchuk, playing through lower back pain which steadily robbed him of his effectiveness, trying to suck it up and help his team.

It’s every story you’ve every heard cited as an example of how tough and determined NHL players are.

Had Kovalchuk scored timely goals which brought his team championship glory, he’d be idolized forever by Devils fans and would’ve silenced his critics. He came up short, but garnered grudging respect from most of his critics, except for those who considered his Russian origins an unpardonable sin.

It’s a culture of pain, where the only thing that matters is the Stanley Cup, which is supposedly worth the pain and suffering.

Call it admirable, crazy, inspirational or selfish. We can admire or loathe that culture, even as we mere fans either struggle to imagine their pain, or criticize them for trying to play through it, but that’s the way it is, and won’t change anytime soon.

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2 Responses to The NHL’s Culture of Pain.

  1. Werdout says:

    Awesome article. Nothing to add, just wanted to say well done. Great read.

  2. gravitymike says:

    Are there any words more gruesome than “a near catastrophic testicle injury.”
    I think again this takes us back to the stoic, team-first mentally that hockey breeds, contributing to their lack of personality. The coach doesn’t want to hear it, “can you play- get on the ice, if not- go tell it to the team doctor, I’ve got a team to prep.” The good old Canadian farm boy mentality still pervades the league, even amongst Russians, despite what Don Cherry says about them.

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